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Applied History or Inflated Expectations – How to Use History (and Historians)?


While the most of us can agree that we need more history in the society and politics, the ways to promote this are not always clear and simple.

In an article in the September issue of the Atlantic, Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson argue that there is a need to better integrate historical knowledge into political decision-making. As an example, they propose that the President of the United States should establish a White House Council of Historical Advisers, charged with analysing the historical background of contemporary phenomena like the ISIS and explicating this to politicians and policy-makers. Shared by HWB on our Facebook page, the article got a lot of likes and attention, encouragingly suggesting that there is a lot of support for the idea of a better utilisation of historical knowledge in the society – which also is an important aim for HWB.

In the article, Allison and Ferguson also strongly call for the introduction of ‘applied history’, which they describe as “a new and rigorous (- -) attempt to illuminate current challenges and choices by analysing precedents and historical analogues.” Not only would this historical approach inform politicians, however, but it would also need to be established as an academic discipline. According to Allison and Ferguson, “[a]pplied historians would take a current predicament and try to identify analogues in the past.”

It is presumably the part on applied history that has inspired Professor Jeremy Adelman from Princeton University to write a relatively critical response to Allison and Ferguson’s article. While he agrees with the authors on the idea of a Council of Historical Advisers, as well as the overall goal of finding historical precedents to solve current problems, Adelman is less convinced about the benefits of compressing this approach into ‘applied history’. If contemporary relevance is what is supposed to dictate the agenda, some topics are bound to be left outside simply because they do not appear to serve the immediate needs of the society. “What happens to pasts that are not so readily repurposed for the future as decided by today? Whose past gets summoned?”, Adelman asks.

In addition, Adelman warns against inadvertently ‘inflating expectations’ for what historians can offer. Overselling history as the source of solutions for all current policy problems may lead to disappointments when this task is not fulfilled and, as the author puts it “could leave us all wondering whether there is any point to history.”

While it would be easy to write off these differing views as an academic skirmish between prominent historians, a closer look at the arguments reveal more profound questions. Even if there is an agreement that history should be used – or applied – more in practical policy, it actually does make a difference how and with what kinds of implications we go about doing this.

Furthermore, the controversy cannot be simplified to a case of detached academics resting on their ivory laurels and politicians too dumb to grasp history unless it is spelled out to them in capital letters. No matter how much good will is involved, it usually is not an easy task to try to translate the results of historical research into easily applicable policy briefs or even to match a specific information need with the relevant research question.

This is very much a concern also for Historians without Borders. As an organisation, we are committed to promoting the use of historical knowledge in decision-making and finding ways in which historians could contribute to peace-resolution processes. In this sense, it certainly is in the interest of HWB to underline the value of historical knowledge in solving current problems.

Adelman’s concern is not with the idea of applying history as such but with the repercussions this might have on the history profession. In an attempt to highlight the ‘relevance’ of history for current affairs, we might end up restricting the scope of historical inquiry in a harmful way. In the present atmosphere where profitability increasingly dictates university education and humanities faculties are under threat of being closed down, it is a regrettably concrete concern that ‘applied history’ might reaffirm a perspective where productive potential is regarded as the only value of historical research.

Paradoxically, such an approach might actually turn out limiting the relevance of historical knowledge. Research-based knowledge can rarely be divided into limited sectors or topics; instead, it is a comprehensive and ever-evolving body of inter-related fields and discourses. Even the topics that appear to be irrelevant are likely to contribute to our understanding of history and society, whether by offering background to a specific topic, providing alternative perspectives or developing our cultural sensitivity overall.

Therefore, in my opinion, it has to be at the core of an organisation like HWB to promote and support the research of all fields and aspects of history. This is not in any way mutually exclusive to the application of historical knowledge into current events; in fact, as we have seen, the two goals are likely to support each other. In the Declaration of Historians without Borders, it is explicitly stated that the Network aims to “deepen general and comprehensive knowledge and understanding of history” and to “encourage interactive dialogue between different views and interpretations of history to assist in the process of mutual understanding”.

This is where the members of HWB have a crucial role. Historians themselves are the best experts to evaluate how historical knowledge could prove beneficial for current discussions or which approaches have been unwisely neglected. The fact that HWB also has members representing the fields of diplomacy and conflict-resolution, among others, gives an exceptionally good chance to generate interactions between the academic and policy communities.

In addition, HWB warmly welcomes input and ideas from all the members. Any contributions, from philosophical insights to the use and abuse of history to very practical project ideas would be very useful for developing the future activities of the organisation. Please also feel free to join in the discussion on our Facebook page or propose a post for our blog. Only through open dialogue is it possible to bridge gaps between different perspectives and find new ways of using our understanding of history while also expanding and deepening it.


Emma Hakala
Ph.D. Candidate, University of Helsinki
Secretary of the Board, Historians without Borders in Finland

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